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Curbing cholesterol could help combat infections, study shows

Visit  The University of Edinburgh website

9 March 2011

Lowering cholesterol could help the body's immune system fight viral infections, researchers funded by Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have found.

The scientists, who are based at the University of Edinburgh, have shown a direct link between the workings of the immune system and cholesterol levels.

Researchers found that when the body succumbs to a viral infection a hormone in the immune system sends signals to blood cells, causing cholesterol levels to be lowered.

Cholesterol produced by our cells is needed for viruses and certain bacteria to grow. Limiting our body's production of cholesterol would therefore curb the opportunity for viruses to thrive.

Scientists say that it may be possible to use cholesterol lowering drugs that also boost the immune system.

Professor Peter Ghazal, of the University's Division of Pathway Medicine, said: "What we have discovered is that a key immune hormone stimulated upon infection can lower cholesterol levels and thereby deprive viral infections of the sustenance they need to grow. Drugs currently exist to lower cholesterol levels, but the next step would be to see if such drugs would also work to help bolster our immune systems."

Currently drugs such as antibiotics are used to fight infections by targeting the bug directly. The researchers hope to find new ways to manipulate the body's immune system by targeting cholesterol metabolism.

This could involve mimicking immune signals sent to lower the production of cholesterol.

Such treatment would help overcome the problems associated with antibiotic resistance, as it would seek to enhance the way the body responds to an infection, instead of focussing on attacking the bug itself.

The research, published in the journal PLoS Biology, was funded by the Wellcome Trust, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the British Heart Foundation.

ENDS

Notes to editors

For more information contact Tara Womersley, Press and PR Office: tel. 0131 650 9836, email tara.womersley@ed.ac.uk.

About the Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust's breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests. For more information visit:  www.wellcome.ac.uk.

About the BHF

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) is the nation's heart charity, dedicated to saving lives through pioneering research, patient care, campaigning for change and by providing vital information. But we urgently need help. We rely on donations of time and money to continue our life-saving work, because together we can beat heart disease. For more information visit www.bhf.org.uk/media/news-from-the-bhf.aspx.

About the EPSRC

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £850M a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other research councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The research councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.

About BBSRC

BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.